Imaginative and diverse, artist Grace Alhbom has a self-proclaimed propensity to “romanticise the handwork, labour-intensive and traditional printing of photography,” she says. From curiously found fanzine images brought into the darkroom and made into cyanotypes, to shining a torch through pin-holes cut from cardboard, hers is a practice that opens up the oft-abandoned darkroom and turns it into a place of delightful happenings, and magic.
Following on from a show at curator Antonia Marsh’s gallery Soft Opening earlier this year, the duo are presenting a weekend-long exhibition and book launch of Grace’s most recent project, Dreaming is Heavy Metal this (Friday 21 September) in the East Village during the New York Art Book Fair. The project — conceived in a Norwegian record store basement-turned-shrine to the black metal scene — fuses fanzine imagery with photographs of found artefacts to create a publication with not only a unique view on this rarely covered 1990s scene, but the evidence of an innovative artistic process, which Antonia describes as “just a glimpse of what is yet to come” from the artist.
Below we speak to Grace about her unusual darkroom techniques, the bizarre black metal memorabilia that informed this project and the role of fandom in her art and own world.
It’s Nice That: Where did Dreaming is Heavy Metal begin?
Grace Alhbom: In the beginning, I was trying to find a subculture I was drawn towards to develop a series with my new printing methods. I was lucky to be visiting Norway so the Helvete project fell into my lap and motivated me to make a body of work. Dreaming is Heavy Metal is my most experimental body of work from the colour darkroom. After being taught my entire college career on how to make the most impeccable colour correct chromogenic print, I’m now doing all things not permitted in the darkroom.
Photographer Ryan McGinley’s acid-trip colours in Irregular Regulars and photographer David Benjamin Sherry’s overly saturated landscapes in Climate Vortex Sutra are both series that inspire me. I admire the patience they put into each print. McGinley’s pre-flashing the film to daylight, television rays or sunsets involves a lot of surprise. Sherry’s post-flashing requires a lot of trial and error both on-site and in the darkroom.
INT: You began the project in Norway. Tell us about the trip, and your encounter with this shop and its basement.
GA: I started the work in Dreaming is Heavy Metal while on a trip to Norway, when I stumbled into a record shop that jump-started my curiosity in the fanaticism of the black metal scene. I’ve always been drawn to fan culture, relics, shrines and their relationship to consumerism and boredom. The shop’s basement served as a museum of artefacts where fanatics visit the original meeting place for many emerging Norwegian black metal bands during the 1990’s. Not dissimilar to my own basement, which serves not only as an archive of my adolescence, but the fantasy these objects seemed to hold for me at the time.
In the record shop, the walls were overwhelmingly lined from floor to ceiling with thousands of records, T-shirts, CDs and props from photo shoots. Aside from shooting the interior of the store, I bought a few fanzines that later became source material for a series of cyanotypes that are featured in the publication. Many of the works take their titles from a written manifesto I found in the basement and reflect my own participation in the fandom.
INT: What is it that continues to fascinate you about your muses Lukas and Joe? What did working with the duo bring to the project?
GA: My interest in black metal’s fandom and folkloric performance is a huge reference in this series. I wanted to have my own take on playing dress up and performing for the camera. I had Lukas Ionesco and Joe Skilton run around London exactly how they normally would, but with black metal makeup on. I brought makeup artist Daniel Sallstrom onto the project. He does drag and is an ex-goth club kid, so I thought he would be perfect.
Lukas and Joe are both subjects I have been shooting for over a few years now. I have managed to incorporate them into almost every project since meeting them. Shooting the same subject over time allows a special connection and trust to build, but it also reveals the performance and gimmick behind the photo I’m setting up. While shooting, I try to make my subject feel comfortable and see me as an individual before a photographer. My main technique is to make my images feel like I’m am just hanging out, and things are casual with my subject.
INT: Death is Heavy Metal first showed at Antonia Marsh’s Soft Opening. Can you talk us through the process of working with Antonia for both the show and the book?
GA: Antonia Marsh and I were introduced in New York by a mutual friend in the art world. We met at a café and I gave Antonia my most recent publication at the time, _Paris Sexy,_ She mentioned seeing my Pratt Institute senior thesis show Dig in Your Heels, Stick to Your Guns on Ryan McGinley’s Instagram and that my meticulous installation caught her eye.
Later into the year, Antonia introduced to me the idea of doing a residency and show at her new gallery Soft Opening located in Piccadilly Circus Underground Station. I also suggested we do the show with Willie Stewart because I wanted the installation to have depth and scale-play into it.
During the show, I was living in London at Antonia’s house doing a residency. Since all of my pieces had already been printed and framed in New York, we weren’t sure what my residency project should be. Turning a series into a publication is a reflex I have, so we decided to make one in London. I wanted the publication to be what I call a “hybrid zine” – playing with both fine art book and zine qualities. Essentially printing a publication professionally, and then having it bound at Staples or vice versa. The works featured in the show come from a larger body of work that Antonia and I were able to turn into publication designed by Ben Ganz.
Now that Dreaming is Heavy Metal is finally published and tangible, we are having a signing for it at Mast Books during the New York Art Book Fair. The event will feel like a re-imagining of the London exhibition - it kinda feels like we’re a band on tour now.
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